CAPSULE: THE SNAKE GIRL AND THE SILVER-HAIRED WITCH (1968)

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING: Yachie Matsui, Yûko Hamada, Sachiko Meguro

PLOTAn impressionable young girl is sent home from the orphanage to live with her parents, where she has to deal with a dazed mother, a hateful maid, a secret mutant sister, and a silver-haired witch intent on killing her.

COMMENTS: How would you feel if you were a child who had grown up an orphan, living a happy life in an idyllic children’s home, only to suddenly leave everything you’ve ever known to live with two strangers who happen to be your real parents? It would probably be difficult, right? Now imagine that on your first night home, your biologist father goes off to Africa, leaving you home alone with your disturbed mother, a stern housekeeper and… a secret older sister with a disfigured face who lives in the attic and happens to be half snake?

Yeah, most children would probably wish they had stayed at the orphanage. But wide-eyed young Sayuri (Yachie Matsui) is too innocent to leave her new parents, despite the countless horrors that she suffers at the hands of her older sister, Tamami (Mayumi Takahashi). First, it’s just a snake in the bed, but the madness soon escalates with a horrific dream where Sayuri’s beloved doll turns into a miniature human and is mauled by Tamami, who transforms into a grotesque reptilian creature when she attacks her prey. 

Even after Sayuri has a toad torn in half and thrown in her face, wakes up to a swarm of spiders in her bed, and is threatened with a flesh-dissolving acid bath, she still remains resolute in her decision to stay with her oblivious mother, who overlooks all of these offenses as unavoidable concessions that must be made to the pitiable Tamami.

But wait… We haven’t even touched on the second part of the title yet! Sayuri is willing to put up with her snaky sister’s shenanigans, but she draws the line at the silver-haired witch who emerges from the shadows of her attic bedroom. She barely escapes the house with her life and returns to the orphanage to seek help, but her sister and the witch aren’t about to let her get away that easily.

Part of a recent slew of obscure Japanese horror films released on the Arrow label, The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is a hidden gem that offers more in the way of garish shocks and traditional horror imagery than more renowned art-house horror classics such as Kwaidan and Onibaba (long available from the Criterion Collection). Directed by Noriaki Yuasa, otherwise known primarily for the Gamera series of sub-Godzilla monster movies, there is nothing dull or formulaic about Snake Girl. It packs a lot of bizarre moments and unexpected plot developments into its brief 82 minute running time, while creating an original mythology of its own, which never relies on the usual horror tropes.

Another secret to this film’s success is the use of a child’s perspective. Horror films seen through the eyes of children are almost always more successful than those where adults are the main characters, although the latter variety is more common. And even though the special effects here are thoroughly low-budget and ridiculous (the titular “snake girl” is represented in dream sequences by a slit-mouthed puppet straight out of Sesame Street), the fact that everything is seen through the eyes of the unsuspecting Sayuri makes it forgivable.

Despite the apparent lack of budget, Yuasa creates a creepy mood that will be irresistible to any horror movie fan. When a film begins with slurping sounds, theremin, and a snake strangulation which is swiftly diagnosed as a “heart attack,” you know you’re in for some good schlock. The visuals are full of swirls and scaly imagery that drives home the idea that Sayuri is living in a house of snakes. There’s always something weird happening to sustain the mood, with none of the romantic side plots or dramatic filler often present in horror films of the era. It might not be high art, but if you’re looking for some classic Japanese horror that delivers the goods without taking itself too seriously, Snake Girl will give you all you’re looking for, and then some.

The Arrow Video release features a stunning new HD restoration that is worth the money. The Blu-ray also features a commentary by film historian David Kalat and an interview which gives some background info on the film and the work of Kazuo Umezu, who wrote the manga on which the film was based (and also has a brief cameo as a taxi driver in the film). Arrow is certainly doing the good work in rescuing these Japanese classics from obscurity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“With a host of surreal imagery including dream sequences full of creepy, hypnotic spirals, and moments of shocking violence such as a large frog being suddenly ripped in half right in front of Sayuri’s eyes the film certainly doesn’t stint on blood, horror and general freakiness… A children’s film that no one in their right mind would actually show to a child…” – Hayley Scanlon, Windows on Worlds

Where to watch The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch

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